Dead Man Walking

By Cassandra Nelson

When the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, approached Robert Pinsky about commissioning “a new English version of some classic play”—as part of theatre director Michael Kahn’s effort to broaden their reach beyond the Shakespeare canon—several candidates for translation were suggested.

“There was a play by Racine, some Yiddish plays,” recalls Pinsky, a professor of English who teaches in the graduate Creative Writing Program and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000. “We thought about Lope de Vega.”

In the end, Pinsky chose Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein—an epic dramatic trilogy completed in 1799 that takes nine hours to perform in the original German. The play chronicles the fall from power and assassination of famed general Albrecht von Wallenstein during Europe’s horrifically chaotic and destructive Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648.

“As the other suggestions did not, this story of an ambiguous, charismatic, flawed hero tickled my imagination,” he says. In addition to translating and significantly condensing Schiller’s play, Pinsky faced the daunting task of bringing the title character to life for American theatergoers. The events of the Thirty Years’ War were distantly removed in time even in Schiller’s day, but contemporary German audiences could be counted on to know Wallenstein as a historical personage.

“Schiller did not have to create stature for such a well-known historical figure. Albrecht von Wallenstein was already large and important,” says Pinsky. “Whereas for a contemporary American audience, ‘Wallenstein’ sounds like the name of any professor, restaurateur, or dermatologist.”

Recreating the necessary “magnetism” for his protagonist involved some trial and error.

“There were many table-reads, with various casts of professional actors, long before the play went into production,” he says. “At one such reading, in New York, I found myself feeling sorry for the wonderful actor who was reading the part of Wallenstein. The play in that earlier state, I realized, was dull.” So Pinsky invented “the character or mode of Dead Wallenstein, who addresses the audience directly, with rather Brechtian comments on the action. Michael Kahn and the actors agreed: that was the point at which the play came to life.”

The play came to life again, in a different way, at the March premiere. “For me, seeing the first performance in Washington was remarkable,” he says. “The quality of the production—the performances, the direction, the lighting, sets, costumes—was overwhelming, excellent, and artful beyond my hopes.”

When asked about Wallenstein’s potential relevance to more recent conflicts such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and entrenched political battles at home—conflicts which, like the Thirty Years’ War, are characterized by their protracted and complex nature—Pinsky offers a twist on the line, often attributed to Mark Twain, that history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.

“History is real. Each historic moment is different. Each particular war, election, political dispute has its character, an organism infinitely complex. So glibly universalizing is barren,” he says. “There’s no point in merely translating the Austrian-Hungarian Empire into twenty-first-century Washington, because if the two periods are the same or merely equivalent, why bother?

“But the past,” he continues, “is significantly recognizable, as well as significantly different. A remote time and place, those remote concerns and characters, can fill an urgent contemporary need.”

One example of this sameness with difference was Pinsky’s decision to change references to what would normally be translated as “the Court” to “Vienna.”

“That term occurs in nearly every scene,” he says, “and I think that the audience inevitably thinks of how contemporary discourse uses ‘Washington’—that mixture of scorn and respect, fear and pride, prejudice and bewilderment, all expressed in the name of a city.”

It is fitting that his Wallenstein should be staged first in Washington, DC, given Pinsky’s abiding passion for bringing poetry to the people. The Favorite Poem Project, begun during his tenure as Poet Laureate, collected letters from more than 25,000 Americans and produced several anthologies, a video archive, and an annual Poetry Institute cosponsored by the Creative Writing Program and the School of Education, which brings elementary, middle, and high school educators to BU for a week each summer.

His desire to make poetry accessible, says Pinsky, is not about “promoting poetry like a brand,” so much as inviting readers to tap into a rich, shared heritage. His newest book Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters, was published by Norton this fall.

“Poetry is central and fundamental. It is at the core of all cultures, and I think that poetry, along with music and dancing, is also at the core of human intelligence itself,” Pinsky says. “Humans exist in time, and culture is our means of existing beyond the human life span. In that sense, we are all many thousands of years old.”

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